Many of the early Qur’ānic sūrahs contain oaths, typical
of which are the oaths sworn by the sun and the moon, day and night, and light
and darkness. While both Muslim and Western scholars have noted the phenomenon,
no satisfactory explanation exists. Ibn Hazm (d: 1064 AD), dissatisfied with
the standard explanation and unable to present an alternative, declared that the
Qur’ānic oaths, together with the ‘broken letters,’ make up the category of
verses called in Qur’ān 3:7 Mutashābihāt (‘ambiguous’).
The only traditional writer known to have written a book on the subject is Ibn
Qayyim (d: 1356 AD), who, in his al-Tibyān fī Aqsām al-Qur’ān, sets out to
explain all the Qur’ān oaths. Ibn Qayyim, however, neither aimed at nor
succeeded in presenting a systematic theory of the oaths, and, in many ways, his
book represents and reinforces the standard explanation. The view about the
Qur’ānic oaths entertained by the generality of Western scholars, too, as we
shall see, does not come to grips with the principal issue. A modern Indian
Muslim writer, Hamīd al-Dīn ‘Abd al-Hamīd al-Farāhī
(1863-1930), has offered a new interpretation of the Qur’ānic oaths which, this
paper will suggest, merits serious consideration. After reviewing the
traditional Muslim and modern Western views on the subject, we shall examine
Farāhī’s interpretation. Farāhī explained only a few of the Qur’ānic oaths in
the light of his theory, and it was left to his student, Amīn Ahsān Islāhī,
to apply it to the rest of the oaths.
II. Traditional View
Zarkashī (d: 1392 AD) defines an oath as jumlatun
yu’akkadu bihā’l-khabaru (a sentence
that confirms a statement through emphasis). Suyūtī (d: 1505 AD.) describes it
in similar terms: al-qasdu bi’l-qasami tahaqīqu’l-khabarī wa tawkīduhū
(The purpose of an oath is to confirm a statement and place emphasis upon it).
In other words, the muqsam bihī (object of oath) serves to emphasise the point
made in the muqsam ‘alayh (complement of oath).
The notable thing, as will soon become clear, is the manner of achieving that
emphasis: through identification of some kind of ‘azamah (glory, excellence,
distinction) in the muqsam bihī (Hereafter: MB). By the sheer force of its
‘azamah, the MB bears out the muqsam ‘alayh (hereafter: MA). It is thus not
necessary to establish a logical or causal connection between the MB and the MA
in a given oath; all that is needed is to ascertain ‘azamah in the MB. That
done, the truth of the MA can be taken for granted.
We shall now document this view of the Qur’ānic oaths by
taking a few examples from three major Qur’ān exegetes, Tabarī (d: 923 AD.),
Zamakhsharī (d: 1144 AD). and Rāzī (d: 1230 AD).
According to Tabarī, ‘Qatādah maintained that, when God
swears by certain objects, he does so in view of the exalted status they have in
His eyes.’ Qatādah explains 92:2-3 by saying that night and day are ‘two great
signs God wraps around the creation’.
Dahhāk, commenting on 89:2-3, says that God has sworn by other days, and has
singled out the day of sacrifice (shaf‘) and the day of ‘Arafah (watr) because
of their known excellence over all the other nights.’
Zamakhsharī makes the following remark about 68:1: ‘He
[God] has sworn by the pen in order to exalt it – for it points to the great
wisdom that inheres in creating it and making it well, and because it carries
countless benefits and advantages.’
God has sworn by ‘the piercing star,’ Zamakhsarī says in reference to 86:1-3,
‘in order to glorify the extraordinary power and subtle wisdom it is known to
Rāzī, commenting upon 44:2, observes that the fact that
God has sworn by the Qur’ān is proof of the excellence (sharaf) of the Qur’ān.
He explains 89:1-5 as follows:
Know that these objects of oath, by which God has sworn,
must represent either some kind of religious blessing (fā’idah diniyyah) … or
some kind of worldly good (fā’idah dunyawiyyah) that would necessitate the
offering of gratitude, or a combination of both. Commentators have accordingly
differed sharply in their interpretation of these things, each interpreting them
in the light of his understanding of what is of the highest value in religion
and of the greatest benefit in respect of worldly matters.
His comment on 90:1-2 is that the oath testifies to the
great honour the town of Makkah possesses.
Discussing 103:1, Rāzī cites four interpretations of the word ‘asr: ‘time’, ‘the
beginning or end of a day,’ ‘the ‘asr prayer,’ and ‘the era of Muhammad’.
The common denominator of all four interpretations, as is evident from Rāzī’s
discussion, is glorification of the MB.
More examples can easily be found in the three exegetes,
and also in others. The
unmistakable impression one gets from a study of traditional Qur’ān commentaries
is that, in dealing with the oaths, the scholars are primarily interested in
establishing the ‘azamah of the MB.
The major problem with the traditional interpretation is
that it fails to address the question of the relationship between the MB and the
MA. An oath, after all, is made up of an MB and an MA, and one cannot help
asking how the two are related. What is the connection, one might ask in
reference to 68:1-2, between the pen and the claim that Muhammad is not a man
possessed; or, in reference to 100:1-6, between swift horses and man’s
ingratitude; or, in reference to S. (=sūrah) 103, between time and the claim
that a large number of human beings are losers in the end? If no definite
relationship exists between the MB and the MA of an oath, then could one play a
mix-and-match game with the Qur’ānic oaths, taking the MB of one sūrah and
pairing it of with the MA of another, because the intended effect of ta’zīm
(glorification, exaltation) of the MB would be produced regardless?
To say that the traditional interpretation of the Qur’ānic
oaths ignores the question of the relationship between the MB and the MA is to
say that it fails to account for the use of the oath in pre-Islamic Arabic
literature. For the Qur’ān was not the first to employ the oath. In pre-Islamic
Arabic literature, two main types of oaths are to be found, the first in poetry,
which may, therefore, be called the poetical oath, and the second in the
utterances of kāhins, which may be called the kāhin oath. The poetical oath is
typified by such expressions as (i) la ‘amrī (by my life), la ‘armu abīka (by
the life of your father), bi rabbi’l-ka’bati (by the Lord of the Ka’bah), and
(ii) wa farasī (by my horse) and wa rumhī (by my spear). In such oaths, the
speaker seems to be trying to establish a connection between the MB and the MA:
he presents the MB in support of the MA, and as a rule does so by staking his
honour on the statement he makes. Typical of the kāhin oaths, on the other hand,
are MB’s that are often drawn from natural phenomena, but which seem to bear no
connection to the MA’s that follow; a lack of connection, in fact, seems to be
one of the factors generating the mysterious aura that gives such an oath its
power, and is, in all probability, consciously aimed at.
These two types of oaths, it is important to keep in mind,
are distinct from each other. In interpreting the Qur’ānic oaths, Muslim
writers, quite understandably, attached no paradigmatic value to the kāhin oath.
But, while they cited the poetical oath in discussions of the Qur’ānic oaths, it
seems surprising that they failed to entertain the possibility that the Qur’ānic
oaths, like the poetical oaths, sought to establish a relationship between the
MB and the MA. But perhaps it was not so much inadvertent failure as conscious
disregard. The poetical oath, when taken as a model for interpreting the
Qur’ānic oaths, presented a theological problem. The thinking of Muslim writers
probably went as follows. In swearing an oath one makes a solemn statement. In
swearing an oath by a certain object, one presents that object as evidence
supporting one’s statement, staking one’s honour on the statement made. That is
what one finds in Arabic poetry. But the Qur’ān is God’s very word, and God does
not need to stake His honour on anything, and, consequently, does not need to
cite anyone or anything in support of what He says. We should not, therefore,
look at the objects He has sworn by as pieces of evidence for the statements
made by Him, but should rather regard them as having been elevated in status for
the simple reason that God has chosen to swear by them. But a difficulty arose
at this point. If a poetical oath made a statement and supported it with
evidence, while the Qur’ānic oath made a statement without corroborating it,
then the former would, in a sense, be superior to the latter – and that would be
unacceptable. There was, however, an easy way to vindicate the Qur’ān – by
asserting that the poetical oath, too, did not provide evidence but simply lent
rhetorical emphasis. In other words, not only was the poetical oath not taken as
a model for interpreting the Qur’ānic oath, the poetical oath was reinterpreted
in order to fit the model that had been created in order to solve a theological
difficulty. It is in this vein that Rāzī says: ‘The Qur’ān was revealed in the
language of the Arabs, and it was customary for the Arabs to reinforce their
statements by means of oaths.’
Here Rāzī uses the word ‘reinforcement’ in the same sense in which Zarkashī and
Suyūtī have used the word tawkīd in describing the function of an oath (see
The Traditional View: A Qualification
Farāhī, as we shall see, argues that the Qur’ānic oaths
are argumentative in nature. Before we present his view – and in order to judge
how original that view is – it is necessary to ask whether the idea of an oath
furnishing evidence (as in the poetical oath) is completely alien to the
traditional understanding. A review of the sources would suggest that the idea
is not totally absent; on occasions at least, we find writers attempting to
establish logical connections between the MB and the MA. Let us take a few
Baydāwī (d: 1286) writes in reference to 43:2: ‘It may be
that the God’s swearing of an oath by certain objects is a mode of presenting
proofs – in view of the evidence those objects furnish for the MA.’
Ibn Kathīr (d: 1398 AD) remarks on 92:1-4 as follows: Since the objects sworn by
in the oath are characterised by contrariety (night and day, male and female),
the MA (‘Indeed your efforts are diverse’) is characterised by contrariety as
well. Nīsābūrī (d: 1446 AD) on
several occasions tries to bring out the harmony between the MB and the MA.
Discussing 84:16-19, he points out that a correspondence (Mutābaqah) exists
between the MB (verses 16-18) and the MA (verse 19): the former speaks of the
changes that take place in the heavens; the latter, of the changes that will
take place in the Hereafter. Undoubtedly, Nīsābūrī concludes, if God can effect
changes of the one type, He should be capable of effecting changes of the other
types also. But perhaps the
writer who more than any other seeks to establish such connections is Ibn Qayyim.
For the moment one example from him will suffice. The point of the oath in
93:1-3, according to Ibn Qayyim, is that God, who does not allow the darkness of
night to persist forever but dispels it by means of daylight, would, by renewing
the process of sending revelation to Muhammad, dispel the darkness caused by the
interruption of revelation.
These examples do indicate a concern with establishing a
meaningful relationship between the MB and the MA. But, first, they constitute
an exception to the rule – the rule of discovering ‘azamah in the MB. Second,
the relationships established in most of them are perhaps not truly logical.
Baydāwī, while he suggests that the MB may serve as evidence for the MA, does
not explain how the evidence is presented in the oath in 43:2; and the
suggestion he makes is quite vague and tentative. Ibn Kathīr, in regard to
92:1-4, does no more than point out that the MB and the MA have similar content
– which hardly makes the MB a proof for the MA. Nīsābūrī’s contention about
God’s ability to effect changes is theoretically sound, but it is difficult to
see in what sense does it constitute a proof in 84:16-19. The weakness of Ibn
Qayyim’s interpretation of 93:1-3 is shown by the fact that it could easily be
inverted to produce the opposite result: just as God does not allow daylight to
persist forever but causes nocturnal darkness to overtake it, the unbelievers
might have argued, so He would to let the daylight of revelation (if, at all,
they were to concede the comparison) continue but would allow it to be overtaken
by the ‘darkness’ by the interruption of revelation.
Here, then, we have yet another criticism of the
traditional view: even when the scholars do make a deliberate attempt to
establish a relationship between the MB, and the MA, the conceive that
relationship in such generalised terms as to fail to explain in what specific
way, in a given case, the MB provides evidence for the MA.21
And so we reach essentially the same conclusion that we
had reached earlier, namely, that it is the MB that receives, practically in
isolation from the MA, the main attention of the traditional scholars.
III. Western View
Theodor Noldeke in his Geschichte des Qur’āns discusses
the phenomenon of the Qur’ānic oaths. Proposing a four-fold division of the
Qur’ānic sūrahs, three Makkan and one Madīnah, he describes the First Makkan
Period as follows:
Die Rede ist grossartig, erhaben und voll kuhner Bilder,
der rhetorische Schwung hat noch ganz poetische Farbung …. Die Gefuhle und
ahnungen des Propheten aussern sich zuweilen in einer Dunkelheit des Sinnes, der
uberhaupt mehr angedeutet, als ausgefuhrt wird.
The Qur’ānic oaths are characteristic of this period:
‘Eine eigentumliche, aber characteristishe Encheinung sind die in dieser
Perioide sehr haufig …. Varkommenden Schwure, durche welche Muhammed besonders
im Anfange der Suren die Wahrheit seiner Reden bekraftigt.
He compares the Qur’ānic oaths to the oaths sworn by the kāhins of the Arabia:
Ebsenso wie den Sag hat er [Muhammad] diesen Brauch den
heidnischen Kahinen abgensehen, wielche ihre Aussagen durch feierliche Schwure
einzuleiten pflegten und hierbei weniger die Gotter zu Zeugen anriefen als die
verschiedensten Naturobjekte, wie Landschaften und Wegemale, Tiere und Vogel,
Tag und Nacht, Licht und Finsterins, Sonne, Mond, und Sterne, Himmel und Erde.
The Qur’ān, however, has two other types of oaths as well,
those in which an oath is sworn by the Last Day or Day of Judgement, and those –
being the most difficult to explain – in which an oath is sworn by female
This is what may be called the standard Western view of
the Qur’ānic oaths. We have said
above that pre-Islamic Arabic literature contains two types of oaths, the
poetical and the kāhin, that the traditional Muslim writers do not consider the
kāhin oath as having any paradigmatic value for interpreting the Qur’ānic oaths,
and that, while explaining these oaths, they do cite the poetical oath, but not
without reinterpreting it drastically, so as to avoid a possible theological
problem. The Western view, on the other hand, disregards the poetical oath as a
possible paradigm for the Qur’ānic oaths, and instead presents the kāhin oath as
the model. But in doing so, it too fails to take into account the Qur’ān’s
categorical refutation of the view that revelation belongs to the genre of
soothsaying (see 52:29; 69:42). Furthermore, the Qur’ānic oaths, according to
the Noldeke, fall into three major categories, and it is only the first category
– and that too only partially – that is represented by the kāhin oaths.
In one respect, however, the Western view is similar to
the traditional Muslim view: in both, the oath is essentially a rhetorical
device: it is used ‘to make the final assertion (MA) more impressive.’
IV. Farahi’s Theory
Anatomy of an Oath
Farāhī holds that the principal function of the oath is to
provide dalīl (argument) and shahādah (evidence). The Qur’ānic oaths are of this
type: the MB furnishes evidence for the MA. An interesting aspect of Farāhī’s
theory is his attempt to see the oaths in a historical-linguistic perspective.
The oath originated in the social need to ratify pacts and agreements. The
ratification took many forms: handshake, the practice from which the word yamīn
(right hand) came to mean ‘oath’;
dipping hands into a bowl of water;
rubbing perfume on hands;
slaughtering an animal and sprinkling its blood on the parties involved in order
to symbolise blood-relationship or, as in Exodus 24:5-8, to confirm a covenant;
and joining chords. Now every
such ratification took place in the presence of witnesses, who could testify to
the occurrence of the event; in fact, to bear witness to an event is to declare
that one was present at the scene of the event.
And that is the crux of an oath: what was sworn by MB was meant to serve as a
witness to the truth of what was sworn of (MA).
Linguistically, the particles of oath are bā’, wāw and tā’.
The first two obviously denote accompaniment (ma‘iyyah) or the joining of one
thing to another (dammu’l-shay’i bi’l-shay’i); the third is, like the tā’ in
taqwā and tujāh, a changed form (maqlūb) of wāw. thus in swearing an oath by a
person or a thing, one wishes that person or thing to ‘bear him company’ or
‘stand by him’. Ta’zīm of the MB may coincidentally occur in an oath but is not
essential to it.
This analysis is interesting in itself, but in offering it
Farāhī makes two important points. First, he establishes a methodological base
for his theory. We have noted above the importance that the traditional writers
seem to attach to the theological perspective in arriving at an explanation of
the Qur’ānic oaths. Farāhī is saying that the phenomenon of the oaths ought to
be appraised from a literary and not a theological standpoint: the historical
origins and linguistic understandings supply the framework within which the
oaths must be studied. Second, Farāhī maintains that the MB, far from being the
most important part of an oath, is only a means for validating the MA. For the
oaths are an instrument of Qur’ānic logic and reasoning, and emphasis should be
placed not on ascertaining the ‘azamah of the MB – since the latter does not
have to be illustrious or magnificent at all – but on establishing a cogent
relationship between the MB and the MA. The MA is the end, the MB is the means.
In narrative order the MB comes first, but the MA has logical priority.
Interpretation of the Oaths
We shall now look at Farāhī’s explanation of some of the
Qur’ānic oaths. The Majmū‘ah-i-Tafāsīr-i-Farāhī consists of commentary on
fourteen of the shorter Qur’ānic sūrahs, and six of them contain oaths: 51, 75,
77, 91, 95, and 103. We can
divide these oaths into four categories. First, the phenomenal oath, in which
individual or multiple phenomena of nature are sworn by. Second, the historical
oath, which cites one or more events from the past. Third, the experiential
oath, in which a certain facet of human experience is presented as evidence.
Fourth, there is what, for want of a better word, may be called the conjugate
oath, one in which a certain entity is shown to be a member of a pair and the
existence of the other member in thus adduced.
Of the six oaths discussed by Farahi, two (51:1-6 and
77:1-6) belong to this category. In S. 51, verses 5-6 (MA) assert that human
actions shall be recompensed in the hereafter. Verses 1-4, 7 (MB) produce the
requisite evidence. As agents of divine mercy, the winds and rains have wiped
out many a rebellious nation. But the same elements of nature which destroyed
Noah’s opponents and Pharaoh’s troops also delivered Noah (sws) and Moses (sws)
and their followers. This shows that God is not indifferent to man’s conduct on
earth: He rewards and punishes in this world, and He will do so in the next life
as well. S.77 is similar to S.
51, and what has been said about. S. 51 will hold for it, too.
Two oaths (95:1-6 and S. 103) fall in this category. In S.
95, the Qur’ān is not describing, as commentators generally believe it is,
the uses of the fig and the olive; rather, it is presenting a well-knit
argument. The sūrah seeks to establish the meting out of recompense in the next
life. Verses 4-6 are the MA, and they imply that people who make proper use of
their faculties and powers will be rewarded, but those who misuse them will be
punished. Verse 7, by using the
word dīn (recompense), elucidates the point further. The MA is supported with
reference to four historic sites on earth.
Tīn (fig) in verse 1 is not the fruit or tree known by
that name, but, in accordance with the Arab custom of calling a place after its
main produce, the name of a place. Nābighah speaks of the cold northerly winds
that cause the light winter clouds to float around Mount Tīn,
and it is likely that he is referring to a mountain in the north, which could be
either Mount Jūdī, which Arab poets associates with extreme cold, or some other
nearby mountain. At Tīn, the
principle of divine reckoning was implemented on two historic occasions. The
first occasion was when the disobedience of Adam and Eve cost them their
celestial robes (7:27). The Torah tells us (Gen. 3-7) that it was with
fig-leaves that they covered their nakedness. Adam and Even later repented and
were forgiven and blessed with guidance. Mount Tīn, thus, represents the
principle in both its twin aspects to reward and punishment. The second occasion
was when Noah’s Ark stood atop Mount Jūdī (11-44) and Noah and his followers
were saved and his opponents destroyed.
Zaytūn (verse 2) is also the name of a place; it refers to
the Mount of Olives, to which, according to the Gospels, Jesus repaired to
worship and pray. Farāhī cites,
first, Psalm 118:22-23, and then Matt. 21:43-44 in explication of it, concluding
that, on the Mount of Olives, Jesus (Luke 22:39-53; Mark 14:33-42; Matt.
26:36-46 invoked the principle of reckoning, as a result of which the kingdom of
heaven was taken from one Abrahamic line, the Israelites, and given to the
other, the Ishmaelites. The Mount of Olives thus also became a landmark in the
history of the enactment of that principle.
The same is true of Mount Sinai (verse 3). It was here
that the persecuted Israelites were rewarded for their steadfastness and given
the Torah, the Law being meant to establish divine sovereignty and thwart the
foes of God.
It is not different with Makkah (verse 4). It was a result
of Abraham’s unqualified submission to Him that God rewarded him and granted his
prayer that Makkah be made ‘a land of peace’ and a prophet raised in it. Also,
Abraham was made ‘a leader of the people’, but was told that God’s promise of
leadership for his progeny would not extend to the iniquitous among them
(2:124). Furthermore, Makkah was to be a land of peace, and those who tried to
rob it of its peace (as did Abrahah) would be punished. In this way Makkah, too,
becomes a living testimony to the validity of the principle of reckoning.
As for S.103, the word ‘asr is usually translated as
‘time’, but its principal use in Arabic is for the time past. In citing ‘asr as
evidence of the loss that is in store for all men except the type described, the
Qur’ān presents past history as evidence. According to the Qur’ān, the rise and
fall of nations is governed by a set of moral laws, and the word ‘asr
constitutes a compact reference to all those momentous events of history which
the Qur’ān elsewhere narrates in detail in order to vindicate those moral laws.
75:1-2. The MA, unexpressed, is that the Hereafter is a
certainty. But that precisely is the MB also: in verse 1 the Resurrection is
sworn by. According to Farāhī, sometimes a thing is so self-evident as to be its
own proof, and this is the case here: the Hereafter is so certain and necessary,
that it would suffice to swear by it to prove its occurrence. However, verse 2,
another MB, provides proof as well: in miniature form, conscience represents the
Grand Court that God will establish on the Last Day. Our intuitive experience of
conscience gives evidence that God, who has planted this ‘reproachful self’ in
our beings will bring about a day of recompense as well.
91:1-10. The MA, again unexpressed, may be stated as
follows: On the Last Day, God will judge human beings. The sūrah presents the
argument from ‘complementary opposites’. Things in this world exist in pairs
whose members are apparently opposites but in reality necessary complements to
each other. Examples are the sun and the moon, day and night, and the male and
the female (verses 1-6). Like the physical world, the spiritual realm, too, with
its categories of good and evil (verses 7-10), displays such opposition. And
just as individual phenomena in the physical and spiritual realms have their
complementary opposites, so the world, taken as a whole, has its complementary
opposite, the next world, without which it would become inexplicable.
Analysis and Observations
The purpose of a Qur’ānic oath, according to Farāhī’s
theory, is not to reinforce the MA or make it sound impressive but to present an
argument. The theory thus suggests the need to draw a distinction between the
formal and the functional aspects of the oaths: formally the oaths may be
peculiar to the Makkan period, but functionally they could be similar to other
devices that are used in both Makkan and Madīnah sūrahs to supply proof or
evidence. In other words, the oaths would be studied primarily under the head of
‘Qur’ānic logic’ rather than under the head of ‘Qur’ānic rhetorical devices’.
Viewed thus, Farāhī’s theory seeks, one might say, to
integrate the arguments presented in the oaths with the arguments presented
throughout the Qur’ān. For instance, past history is cited in numerous places in
the Qur’ān as evidence of certain truths, and Farāhī’s interpretation of S. 103
would appear to be a presentation of the same evidence in an abbreviated form.
Similarly, the citing, in S. 51, of the winds and rains as proof of recompense
in the hereafter is a reference, again abbreviated, to the principles of
recompense that has been elaborated in many other places in the Qur’ān. On a
larger scale, one might argue, the oaths, as interpreted by Farāhī, give us an
insight into the relationship between the Makkan and the Madīnah sūrahs: the
same arguments that are presented with brevity in the Makkan sūrahs are
presented in greater detail in the Madīnah. A problem arises at this point,
however. Unlike the ‘detail’ of the Madīnah period, the ‘brevity’ of the Makkan
period, as seen in the oaths, is not without ambiguity – or Ibn Hazm would not
have classified the oaths as Mutashābihāt and the traditional Muslim scholars
would not have differed in their opinions about the referents of the MB’s in the
oaths. The question arises: how can one be sure, in the case of S. 51 for
example, that the referents in the first four verses are the winds and no other
thing – or being – or that tīn, zaytūn, Mount Sinai (tūr sīnīn), and Makkah (al-balad
al-amīn) in S. 95 stand only for the sites identified by Farāhī? While no
completely satisfactory answer to this question can be given, it seems
reasonable to hold that the interpretation of an oath should be evaluated not
only for self-consistency but also for consistency with the context in which the
oath occurs and, perhaps, with the thematic content of the Qur’ān as a whole. If
this is a valid test, then Farāhī’s explanations of the Qur’ānic oaths would
seem to pass it with a comfortable margin.
Farāhī’s theory seems to compare favourably, on several
counts, with the traditional. First, Farāhī’s basic contention seems to be
correct, namely, that the key to the meaning of an oath is to be found in the
relationship between the MB and the MA, for, as remarked earlier, an oath is
composed of an MB and an MA. For all practical purposes the idea that the oath
presents an argument is new, for the traditional scholars give it only marginal
recognition; the thrust of their work on the subject being very different.
Second, Farāhī’s theory is methodologically superior.
Instead of viewing the oaths through theological lenses, Farāhī looks at them
from a historical-linguistic perspective. Consequently, unlike the traditional
scholars, whose inability – or was it reluctance? -- to see the element of
evidence in a Qur’ānic oath led them to deny the presence of evidence in the
poetical oath (see section II, above) Farahi has offered a theory that can be
applied to the poetical (see below) as well as to the Qur’ānic oath.
Third, Farāhī’s interpretations of the six oaths are
plausible, coherent, and contextually meaningful. His account of 95:1-6, for
example, not only establishes a definite connection between the MB and the MA,
it gives the oath remarkable internal consistency: all four MB’s (fig, olive,
Sinai, Makkah) have a common MA, and each is directly and clearly connected to
it. His attempt to draw on the Bible and Classical Arabic poetry adds to the
richness of the interpretation. Farāhī also succeeds rather well in accounting
for the specificness of the MB of a given oath. The oaths in Ss. (Sūrahs) 51,
91, and 95, for example, have the same MA (recompense in the Hereafter), but the
MB in each sūrah is different. And in each case Farāhī tries to bring out the
specific relation the MB bears to the MA. His method is thus in marked contrast
to, for example. Baydāwī’s, discussed above with reference to 51:1-6 and 52:1-8
(see n. 21, above). His explanation of 51:1-6 makes the oath fit the context of
the whole sūrah. The sūrah cites the workings of the winds and rains as proof
that God will bring about the Day of Judgement. This idea is supported in the
sūrah itself with reference to several peoples in whose destruction the winds
and rains were instrumental, and is brought out in greater detail in many other
places in the Qur’ān. In S. 103 the word ‘asr, taken as a reference to history
as viewed by the Qur’ān, becomes a rich and variegated mass of evidence
compressed into a single word. The possibility of linking an oath ideationally
with the broader segments of the Qur’ān obviously gives it considerable depth.
A few remarks needs to be made about Farāhī’s insistence
that ta‘zīm is not essential to the oath. Farāhī holds this view for two
reasons. First, there are oaths in Arabic poetry that are made up simply of
words like aqsama, ālā, and halafa (all three meaning ‘to swear’), and contain
no MB. Imru’l-Qays, for example, says: wa ālat halfatan lam tahallalī (And she
swore an oath that remained unbroken).
Second, poets sometimes swear by things that lack ‘azamah, or are even
positively inglorious. Abu’l ‘Uryān, praising Hatīm’s generosity, swears by
cooking-pots and shining knives;
Hijris, upon avenging his father, boasts of his horse, spear, and sword;
and ‘Urwah Ibn Murrah al-Hudhalī satirises a certain Abū Umāmah’s call to the
tribe of Bakr for help, swearing by the Markhah tree, proverbial for weakness
and hardly something to glorify – ‘By the Markhah tree,’ he says, ‘what a
dreadful call!’ Farāhī contends
that these poets, far from glorifying the objects they are swearing by, are
presenting proofs for the statements they are making. Thus Abu’l ‘Uryān is
saying that people would testify to Hātim’s generosity, and so would the
cooking-pots and knives, if only they could speak. Hijris cites his horse,
spear, and sword, arguing that, being capable of riding a horse and wielding
spear and sword, he could not have let his father’s killer go free;
and ‘Urwah Ibn Murrah likens the tribe of Bakr to the Markhah tree, the
comparison allowing him to ridicule the idea of calling the Bakr for help.
Farāhī’s reasons for denying ‘azamah to the MB are not
very convincing: nor do they lend support to his own theory. Several points may
be made. First, if an oath lacks an MB (as in the line from Imru’l-Qays), it
might simply mean that the MB was actually uttered but the poet did not
reproduce the oath in full. Second, in several of the Qur’ānic oaths the MA is
left out. Does that mean that the MA is inessential to the oath? Third, the
question as to what things possess ‘azamah and what things do not, is a relative
one: in fact it is a question of how ‘azamah is to be defined. To an Arab,
horses and swords and spears were certainly possessed of it, for they were
associated with his honour, and if one could swear by one’s honour, and could
certainly swear by things associated with it. As for the markhah tree, it may
lack ‘azamah, but then the verse is satirical, and swearing by something
inglorious suits the occasion. It seems that, in his concern to establish the
argumentative character of the oath, Farāhī sets up a needless dichotomy between
glorification and argument, for they do not have to be mutually exclusive.
In another sense also, the dichotomy is unwarranted.
Farāhī holds that the Qur’ānic oaths are not rhetorical flourishes but pieces of
reasoning. But the question is: Is the rhetorical element completely excluded?
The oaths, after all, do not present syllogisms. Nor is the connection between
the MB and the MA always very obvious. Plausible as Farāhī’s interpretation of,
for example 95:1-6 is, it is the result of considerable reflection on Farāhī’s
part, and does not tell us much about the impact the oath might have had on the
first audience of the Qur’ān. Can it be denied that the immediate effect of the
oath upon that audience was of a kind other than rhetorical? The very fact that
most of the Qur’ānic oaths are composed of short, rhyming expressions and many
have a highly referential style shows that the form was supposed to have
persuasive force independently of the content. The form of the oaths is thus no
less important than their content, it may even condition the nature of that
content. The oaths do not make an appeal to the mind only; rather; with their
rhymes, images, and staccato style, they also excite the imagination and stir
the feelings. Their aim is not only to convince but also to move, and what they
present, therefore, is not just cold reasoning but vibrant thought. This is not
to say that the Qur’ānic oaths are not argumentative, only that they should not
be viewed as material fit for cerebral exercises only.
V. Concluding Remarks
The question whether Farāhī’s understanding of the
Qur’ānic oaths corresponds to the understanding of the first audience of the
Qur’ān is difficult to answer. But the main difficulty here stems not from a
lack of historical evidence in support of Farāhī view, but from a lack of such
evidence in support of any view at all. For if the traditional theory of the
Qur’ānic oaths seems to be so well entrenched, then it is not because the first
addressees of the Qur’ānic are definitely known to have subscribed to it, but
because no alternative theory of the oaths has been put forward. This being the
case, Farāhī’s theory should be compared with the traditional theory in respect
of whether it offers a more cogent and meaningful explanation of the data and
There is the question of extra-Qur’ānic parallels, Noldeke
likens the Qur’ānic oaths to the oaths sworn by the kāhins of Arabia.
But one could argue that oaths occurring in standard Arabic poetry rather than
those occurring in the utterances of soothsayers ought to be taken as the model
for the Qur’ānic oaths. For, if the Qur’ānic oaths are a form of reasoning, and
the oaths in Arabic poetry can be interpreted similarly (see above Farāhī’s
interpretation of the verse of Abu’l ‘Uryān, Hijris, and ‘Urwah Ibn Murrah),
then the two would be fundamentally different from the soothsayers’ oath. One
might even argue that, in the hands of the soothsayer, the oath degenerated into
a form of tawdry embellishment.
Whether one accepts or rejects Farāhī’s theory, in whole
or in part, it can hardly be doubted that Farāhī’s ideas are both important and
Courtesy: ‘Islamic Studies’, Spring 1990